Why you don't need anything from me, or anyone else for that matter
Modern society is structured around a fundamental sense of lack. You might be happy if only you were thinner, younger, more attractive, had a bigger house or a better car, got that promotion at work, owned a George Foreman grill, etc. etc. - but you aren't, and you don't, and so you suck and deserve to be miserable. Well, who wants to be miserable? So we spend our days chasing around trying to get the things we feel we're lacking, or trying to compensate for them in other ways - either way, constantly circling this gnawing sense of inadequacy that our society is trying so very hard to train into us.
Fortunately, there's another option available to us.
Your true nature is Buddha Nature
In Rinzai Zen circles we talk a lot about kensho, 'seeing true nature'. The term is often used to refer to a shift in perception that comes about as a result of practice (e.g. when you 'break through' a koan such as 'Who am I?'), and is regarded as the start of the process of awakening. Another term for this true nature is Buddha Nature.
Early Buddhism tended to present awakening as something that you had to work up to. You started out as an 'uninstructed worldling', full of defilements and impurities, and through the course of the gradual path of training you would gradually work your way up the mountain, where the supreme enlightenment of the arahants waited for you at the top. This approach to practice makes a lot of conventional sense - we're starting out from a place of not knowing what the heck is going on, and we gradually train and practise, developing our meditation skills along the way, with the ultimate goal of reaping the benefits of that training. Viewed this way, the path is like learning to drive - we start out not able to drive, then we undertake the process to learn how, with a lot of help from a teacher, and eventually we reach the point where we can drive wherever we want to go, even in bad weather conditions.
However, there are some drawbacks to this view of the path, particularly for us modern folk. Notice how the above description plays perfectly into the narrative of lack. We start out by saying that you basically suck - you don't know how to meditate, you're full of defilements and impurities, you've got a whole mountain to climb before you have any hope of happiness - but luckily I can help, provided you're willing to donate generously to my teaching fund, of course! After just a few decades of regular donations, you'll be enjoying a basic sense of well-being, and - if you're good enough to make it into my inner circle - you can hang out with me at my solid gold house.
Perhaps fortunately, the later tradition takes a different view. Texts like the Lotus Sutra present the view that we all carry the seed of awakening within us already. Sooner or later, that seed will ripen, and we will flower into the fully awakened Buddhas that, deep down, we already are. Nobody can give you your awakened nature, and nobody can take it away from you - it's yours, always has been and always will be.
Indeed, in the Zen tradition, your Buddha Nature is considered to be synonymous with your mind - yes, the one you have right now. What could be closer, more truly yours? How could anyone ever give it to you or take it away from you?
So how come I don't feel enlightened?
In the Lotus Sutra, there's a story about a couple of friends who go out drinking, and end up in a bit of a state, far from home. One falls asleep, having run out of money. The other needs to get going and can't stay with him, but before he leaves, he sews a precious jewel into his friend's cloak, so that at least when his friend wakes up he'll have some money. The trouble is, his friend is too far gone to realise that this has happened, and when he wakes up the next morning, all he can see is that he's in an unfamiliar place without any money - not aware of the riches he's carrying with him. So he ends up living a life of poverty for quite some time, until he finally meets up with his friend again, who points out the jewel he's had with him all along.
Buddha Nature is the same way. We carry it with us at all times, but until we realise it's there, it's as if we didn't have it at all.
Traditionally, this is explained through the mechanism of 'obscurations', which are compared to clouds in the night sky. On a cloudy night, all you can see is darkness above. Then the clouds part for a moment, and you catch a glimpse of the moon, shining brightly above you.
In the same way, we periodically catch glimpses of our Buddha Nature, in moments of stillness, peace, joy, contentment, love or compassion. But then the clouds come back, covering the moon once again.
Initially, then, the task is to see the moon for ourselves and know it for what it is. We practise not to make ourselves worthy enough to become enlightened, but simply to see past the clouds in our own minds, knowing right from the start that what we're seeking is already there. Then, once we have verified for ourselves that this really is true, we can come to trust more and more that our deepest core is fundamentally fine just the way it is - ultimately, we lack nothing. Even when the clouds temporarily obscure the moon, we know the moon is still there - there's no sense of gaining or losing, because there's nothing to gain or lose. Our true nature is our true nature, no matter what else is going on. Over time, we come to live more and more from our true nature.
Glimpsing the moon
You might be wondering why we need to practise at all, if we have this Buddha Nature already. The short answer is that practice helps! You'll come to see the moon clearly much more quickly if you deliberately engage in looking at the night sky, night after night, rather than just hoping your eye randomly falls on the sky at a moment when the clouds happen to have parted.
In the same way, practice helps us to connect more quickly, clearly and deeply with our Buddha Nature. As mentioned, our minds are often obscured - we have all kinds of thoughts, beliefs and mental habits which get in the way, and our attention tends to spend most of its time focused on those, rather than seeing beyond the mental activity to the mind's deeper nature.
Meditation practice orients us towards stillness and clarity. As we become still, the swirling obscurations in our minds slow down, and eventually come to rest. As we become clear, we see more deeply into our own nature. Over time, our Buddha Nature unfolds before our eyes, simply by virtue of the obscurations thinning out and dissolving. One beautiful way to explore this is through the practice of Silent Illumination. Another approach is to use a koan, such as 'Who am I?', to drill a hole in the obscurations and catch a glimpse of what's on the other side. (Guided versions of both of these practices are available on my Audio page.)
A third option is to orient ourselves intentionally toward the qualities of Buddha Nature. Using a base practice like Silent Illumination or following the breath, we then tune into any qualities of well-being that we happen to notice as we sit. Perhaps you notice a sense of stillness; lean into that, taste it, really allow the stillness to permeate your being. Or perhaps you discover a sense of contentment deep in the body; again, really feel the contentment, drink it in. Other qualities to explore include love, compassion, a sense of boundarylessness, a sense of timelessness, a sense of flow.
As you open to your Buddha Nature again and again, you'll find that old ways of being rooted in a sense of fundamental lack begin to fall away, and more and more your life becomes an expression of your innate goodness. I can't tell you what that will look like - although we each possess Buddha Nature, our individual expressions of it are unique. Only you can see for yourself what happens when you open to your deepest nature - the true nature that you already possess.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.